It is the most common activity in all social settings. Sometimes it is explicit: we argue for or against something. At others it is implicit: we show interest or lack of interest. More often than we realize we are engaged in persuading others or are being persuaded by them about big and small things in life. It is a very powerful force also. That is why marketers yearn for word of mouth publicity and powerful media machines long for becoming the talk of the town.
Concerned with good as it is, Islam gives this tremendous social force a purpose. It must be used for promoting good, truth and justice and checking evil and injustice. That is the essence of amr-bil-maroof-wa-nahi-anil-munkar. And Qur'an declares it as the defining mission for this ummah:
"You are the best community that has been raised for mankind. You enjoin good and forbid evil and you believe in Allah." [Aal-e-Imran, 3:110].
At another place Qur'an declares promoting good as an attribute of believers and promoting evil as an attribute of hypocrites:
"The believers, men and women, are protectors of each other: they enjoin what is right and forbid what is evil."[Tauba, 9:71]
On the other hand,
"The hypocrites, both men and women, proceed one from another. They enjoin the wrong and forbid the right..."[Tauba, 9:67]
The implications are clear. It is not that a believer will never commit a mistake or be involved in evil. Only that he will never insist on it, justify it, or promote it. He may fail to do some required good. But he will never be a force opposing it. In the Islamic society sin is a private weakness, not a public cause. It is for this reason that repentance for a public sin must also be made in public while we must repent privately for our private sins. A public sin may have encouraged others to do the same. A public repentance will counter that.
Still in this life there will always be tendencies to deviate from the Straight Path. And in the institution of amr-bil-maroof, the Community of Believers has a built-in self- correcting mechanism. Consider cruise control in an automobile. Once turned on, it keeps monitoring the car speed and pulling it towards the set point. It does not mean absence of tendency to deviate from the desired speed, only an effective mechanism for monitoring and countering it. What cruise control does for car speed, amr-bil-maroof does for the direction of the society.
This mechanism works at two levels. At one level it is the responsibility of every member of the society. When we see a wrong we should correct it. A very famous hadith declares it as an issue of faith. "Whoever amongst you sees an evil should change it with his hand. If he is unable to do that then with his tongue. If he is unable to do that, then with his heart, and that is the weakest level of Iman." [Muslim] So if a person does not even feel bad about an evil, he has no faith whatsoever. Similarly we are encouraged to promote good. One hadith promises that a person who persuades another one to do some good deed will get the same reward as the person he persuaded. At this level the responsibility of every member of the society is for his or her own sphere of influence: family, friends, colleagues, neighbors. When taken together these spheres would encompass the entire society.
At a higher level this is a specialized task. A full time job for a qualified group to always monitor the direction of the society and fight deviations at a collective level.
"Let there arise out of you a group inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong. They are the ones to attain success."[Aal-e-Imran, 3:104]
This is the responsibility of the experts, the scholars, those qualified to lead the entire community.
Can we imagine what the ummah would look like had we followed this one teaching seriously? For today we seem to be doing exactly the opposite. There are Muslim women who have been pressured out of observing hijab by friends and relatives. Men and women have been enticed into riba transactions. All innovations (bid'at) and false social practices continue under social pressures. Bribery, backbiting, corruption, indecency, and dishonesty flourish under social approval. It is frightening to see how our real life matches the description given for the hypocrites. For we are warned that if we persuade others to commit a wrong we'll add to our burden of sins by the same amount. It is one thing to commit a wrong out of weakness. It is totally different to advocate the wrong and willingly multiply our burden of sins.
At the collective level also, especially in the Muslim communities in the West, one can see a tendency to avoid raising voice against prevalent and accepted ills. It is far easier to give a pep talk about the virtues of Islam at the Friday Khutbah. At other places one may even hear advocacy of wrong in the name of ijtehad.
Of course for today's secular world amr-bil-maroof is an alien concept. This world is driven by interests not principles. It professes belief in some moral values -- like freedom-- to be interpreted in the light of perceived interests. Thus defense of a person's obscene attacks on Islam becomes a virtue. Yet it finds nothing wrong in curbing the freedom of those who may challenge its ideas, whether in Algeria or Egypt, in Kashmir or Palestine, because that threatens its interests. No one should be surprised at such contradictions when interests override relative moral values.
Yet we see a growing attitude in the Muslims in the West under the influence of this slogan of freedom. It effectively says: "This is my life, leave me alone." But we must remember that the Islamic society is the only society with a declared mission of promoting good and forbidding evil. Its definition of good and evil is not subject to the whims and desires of every generation or the perceived interests of a nation-state either. They are permanent concepts as defined in its unalterable sources: Qur'an and Sunnah. In a world of moral relativism these permanent values are the hope for the whole mankind. To keep these alive in the society we need the institution of amr-bil-maroof.